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What Is a Behavioral Therapist and What Do They Do?

Written by Saya Des Marais

Published: Nov 27, 2023

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Geralyn Dexter

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We all have behaviors that we’d like to change; for example, you might want to exercise more, drink less alcohol, or get to sleep at a more reasonable time. To get support in changing these behaviors, you can turn to a behavioral therapist. But just what is a behavioral therapist and what do they do?  

In this article, we dive into where behavioral therapy came from, what behavioral therapy is, how effective it is, and how a behavioral therapist can help you.

Klarity Health can connect you with a licensed behavioral therapist who can help you start working on problem behaviors right away. You can hand-pick a therapist that meets your needs. 

What Is Behavioral Therapy and Where Did It Come From?

Behavioral therapy is a broad category of therapies and therapy techniques that work to help people change unwanted or unhealthy behaviors.  

Behavioral therapy came out of the principles of behaviorism, which focused on the relationship between environment and behavior. In the 1950s, psychologists like B.F. Skinner, the father of behaviorism, first researched how learning theories, like operant conditioning (reinforcing behaviors through punishment and reward), could be applied to helping people change their behaviors. 

Today, behavioral therapists use many different techniques, not only reward, and punishment. 

What Is a Behavioral Therapist?

A therapist is someone skilled in and who provides therapy. A behavioral therapist may also be called a behavioral counselor or behavior therapist and is a practitioner who is skilled and provides behavioral therapy. 

Unlike other types of therapists, such as cognitive therapists or psychoanalysts, behavior therapists focus on actions rather than thoughts or emotions. 

While psychotherapists help you reflect on and deal with your past experiences or mental illness, behavioral therapists help you set a goal for changing a specific behavior and work with you on the steps, and/or techniques, needed to do that.

By helping you change your behaviors, a behavioral therapist helps you feel better about yourself and overcome your unwanted or destructive behaviors.

What Does a Behavioral Therapist Do?

Behavioral therapists work with people with a wide range of mental and physical health problems to help them stop those unwanted or unhealthy behaviors

A behavioral therapist can help you if there’s any behavior pattern in your life that you’d like to change. You might work with a behavioral therapist if you have:

  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Unhealthy substance use behaviors
  • An eating disorder or unhealthy eating patterns
  • Social anxiety, agoraphobia, or other phobias
  • Anger management issues, like intermittent explosive disorder
  • Insomnia
  • Process addictions like gaming or gambling
  • Nonsuicidal self-harming behavior, like cutting
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions
  • Chronic health conditions worsened by unhealthy habits

What Techniques Do Behavioral Therapists Use? 

Behavioral therapists use many different techniques, or a mix of techniques, to help patients change behaviors, including the following.


With self-monitoring, a behavioral therapist encourages you to monitor your own behavior and how it makes you feel. They might guide you to keep a log or a journal, so you can start to see patterns between your actions and emotions.

For example, self-monitoring might help you see that you feel more depressed every time you drink alcohol. Or, you might realize you feel less anxious when you see your friends instead of giving in to your fears and staying at home.

When you recognize the link between your behaviors, thoughts, and feelings, it’s easier to make changes.

Systematic Desensitization

Systematic desensitization is a behavioral therapy technique that helps people with severe fears or phobias. In systematic desensitization, a behavioral therapist helps you intentionally expose yourself to the things you fear, little by little. Every time you expose yourself to these fears, your therapist will help you use stress management techniques to decrease your anxiety.

The idea is that the more you expose yourself to your fears and train yourself to relax, the less anxious you’ll feel when you come across the things that trigger your phobia.

Relaxation Techniques

A technique many mental health professionals use is to teach relaxation techniques. Stress, especially chronic stress, can trigger unwanted behaviors. 

Behavioral therapists may teach evidence-based relaxation strategies, like progressive muscle relaxation, to let you consciously reduce your stress levels as a way to change behaviors.

Behavioral Activation

If you’ve ever experienced depression, you know that it can quickly become a vicious cycle. You feel depressed, so you isolate yourself. Or perhaps you sleep too much, eat too much, or stop exercising. It’s understandable to not want to do these things when depression is all-consuming.

But when we stop practicing these healthy habits, depression tends to get worse. This can create a negative loop that’s difficult to get out of — you don’t want to socialize because you’re depressed, but not socializing makes you more depressed, and so on.

Behavioral activation is a technique that behavioral therapists use to help you do the things that make you happier, even when — perhaps especially when — you don’t feel like doing them.

Skills Training

Often, behavioral therapists focus on helping you learn new skills, so you can build better habits. Often, we simply aren’t equipped with the tools to cope well with life’s hardships. Conditions like ADHD and depression can also affect the way your brain functions. 

Behavioral therapists use skills training to fill in these gaps. For example, if you live with ADHD, they might teach you skills like time management, task prioritization, and organizational skills. If you live with social anxiety, they might help you practice social interactions and teach you healthy communication skills.


Behavioral therapists typically use the aversion technique with people who struggle with substance use or other addictions. 

Through aversion therapy, behavioral therapists help you train your mind to associate addictive behaviors with an unpleasant stimulus. For example, they might help you associate drinking with nausea and vomiting. This can reduce your desire to drink, which can help you overcome your substance use disorder.

What Are the Types of Behavioral Therapy?

Behavioral therapy is a broad umbrella term, with many different therapy methods falling under this umbrella. Originally, behavioral therapy focused on rewards and punishments (operant conditioning). Today, behavioral therapy involves more complex methods and is typically used with cognitive therapy. 

Here are some of the most common types of behavioral therapy used today.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

You may have heard of cognitive-behavioral therapy or CBT. This is a therapy method that combines behavioral therapy with cognitive therapy — a therapy method that helps people change unhelpful thoughts.

The idea behind CBT is that our behaviors, thoughts, and feelings are deeply connected. By changing both our thoughts and behaviors, we can start feeling better.

For example, you might do poorly on a project. Your first thought might be, “I’m a failure.” This thought might make you withdraw from people at work or drink too much at happy hour. These behaviors, in turn, make you feel worse about yourself (and often make the actual situation worse, too).

CBT helps you identify and change unhelpful thoughts that arise when you’re faced with triggers. If you can change these thoughts, then you can change your behaviors and how you feel.

CBT Is One of the most effective forms of therapy for ADHD and other mental and physical health concerns. 

Dialectical Behavior Therapy

Dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, was originally created to help people who struggled with suicidal thoughts and behaviors and individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD). The behavioral therapy component of DBT teaches techniques you can use to cope with painful moments in life. Instead of lashing out (at yourself or others), DBT teaches you how to use skills like healthy distractions and mindfulness to cope in healthier ways.

Exposure and Response Prevention

Exposure and response prevention, or ERP, is a specific type of behavioral therapy that’s mostly used to help people with OCD, although it can be helpful for people with anxiety disorders (like specific phobias) as well. 

ERP helps people with OCD tolerate scary intrusive thoughts without giving in to their compulsions. This can help them get better and better at coping with and avoiding, OCD behaviors.

Applied Behavior Analysis

Applied behavior analysis, commonly known as ABA, is a type of behavioral therapy often used with children, especially those with autism. ABA helps children learn skills based on the principles of operant conditioning; positive behaviors are reinforced through rewards. 

Does Behavioral Therapy Work?

Research shows that behavioral therapy, especially CBT, is effective in treating a wide range of physical and mental health conditions. 

Many types of behavioral therapy are recommended by the American Psychiatric Association as an evidence-based treatment for mental health conditions:

  • CBT is recommended as the first-line treatment for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and more.
  • ERP is recommended as the first-line treatment for OCD.
  • DBT is recommended for the treatment of borderline personality disorder.
  • A combination of CBT and stimulant medication is the recommended treatment for adult ADHD. 

Behavioral therapy is an effective part of treatment for many, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only therapy method you should consider. Different therapy types work for different people. Behavior therapy is most likely to be effective for you if you’re looking to change specific behaviors that are making you feel worse.

You can choose a treatment plan that combines behavioral therapy with another type of psychotherapy or medication treatment. It’s important to find the treatment that works for your unique needs.

Finding a Behavioral Therapist

Finding a behavioral therapist that meets your unique needs can be a challenge. Some important factors to consider when choosing a behavioral therapist include:

  • Do they only practice behavioral therapy, or do they combine it with another type of treatment?
  • Are they able to prescribe psychiatric medication if/when you need it?
  • Do they have experience working with people who’ve been through similar experiences as you?
  • Are they trained in helping people who live with similar mental health conditions? For example, if you’re seeking support for ADHD, do they have specific training and experience working with people with ADHD?
  • Are they licensed to practice therapy where you live, and are they able to meet with you at a time and place that’s convenient for you?

The last thing you need when you’re seeking mental health support is to jump through hoops. 

Easily Find a Therapist with Klarity

With Klarity, you don’t have to wade through a sea of therapist profiles to find the best therapist for you. Klarity uses your preferences to connect you with the best possible therapist for your unique mental health needs.

Unlike other platforms, Klarity gives you all the information you need to know about each therapist available and lets you hand-pick the therapist who’s right for you from a diverse team of mental health therapists and other medical professionals, including behavioral therapists.

Explore available providers for your needs by taking a short, free self-assessment. Then, Klarity can connect you with a licensed behavioral therapist who can help you start working on problem behaviors right away — no insurance is needed. 

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